Edition 127, October 2023

A Circular Economy Requires Repairability

By Jack Monahan, iFixit

Each year, humanity uses more resources than the earth can possibly regenerate, leading to the depressing holiday known as Earth Overshoot Day—the day of the year when we’ve used more resources than the earth has made. In 2023, overshoot day was August 2, while in the 1970s the day used to come in December.

As our cycles of consumption continue to accelerate, we are bringing ourselves closer to an uninhabitable planet. There will be a variety of strategies needed to break with our habits of consumption, and repair is a strong tool for doing just that. So why are companies, which are quick to jump on the pro-environmental and “circular economy” bandwagon, also restricting repair? Put simply, these buzzwords and platitudes alone will need action backing them up.

Spare parts at a Restart Party in Camden, UK. The Restart Party hosts repair events, and they estimate that repairs at their events have saved 40,989 kg of CO2 emissions. Image via Restart Project on Flickr.

Repair Adds Credibility to Circular Economy

Repair breeds intimate relationships with objects we rely on, promotes self-reliance, and builds community as people share their skills. Let’s take the example of bicycles, where the benefits and ease of repair are well-known. But e-bike manufacturers are bucking this trend as they attempt to maximize their control over e-bike repairs under the guise of sustainability. While regular bikes are standardized and easy to repair, e-bike makers are seeking exemptions from right-to-repair laws altogether, citing safety concerns (such as exploding batteries) and are instead advocating for authorized battery repairs and recycling.

This lock-down of e-bike batteries is a fairly minor example compared to the flagrant software controls used on other products. Cory Doctorow, who coined the term “enshittification” for the worsening quality of services and products in the face of corporations with dominant market power, reminds us that software can make our repair even more difficult. Tesla is a prime example, having used software to lie about their battery ranges, made cars less safe when using third-party parts, and allegedly repossess cars from delinquent buyers. Doctorow reminds us that the same part pairing technology that keeps out third-party parts from connecting with tractors and cars are also in life-saving ventilators:

By usurping your right to decide who fixes your phone, Apple gets to decide whether you can fix it, or whether you must replace it. Problems solved – and not just for Apple, but for car makers, tractor makers, ventilator makers and more.

Cory Doctorow

It’s easy to box right to repair into a fight over spare parts for iPhones. But at its core, it’s an issue of corporate power and control. When we don’t get a McFlurry that’s one thing, but when ventilator prices rise because of repair restrictions the stakes are very different. Repair can resist this “enshittification” by demanding agency, autonomy, and transparency over machines that are currently under the control of corporations.

Balancing Out Corporate Power

Earth Overshoot Day reminds us that we need to change a lot to begin healing our ecological systems. But we are oftentimes fed a narrative that if we leave it to the tech companies they will solve it for us.

Take the fashion company Rent the Runway as a prime example. The online clothing rental company promises its consumers they are helping the environment by curbing their addiction to fast fashion—simply transition your clothing-buying habit to a subscription clothing model. In reality, a study of the company’s environmental impact found “you’re better off buying clothes and throwing them away.” It turns out that not buying anything at all is usually the best route to make an impact.

The extreme version of this argument that circular business practices have even been supported by the World Economic Forum. It published a piece in 2016 titled “Welcome To 2030: I Own Nothing, Have No Privacy and Life Has Never Been Better” that shows the extremes of what a world devoid of ownership and agency over our machines would look like:

Once in a while, I will choose to cook for myself. It is easy—the necessary kitchen equipment is delivered at my door within minutes. Since transport became free, we stopped having all those things stuffed into our home. Why keep a pasta-maker and a crepe cooker crammed into our cupboards? We can just order them when we need them.

This also made the breakthrough of the circular economy easier. When products are turned into services, no one has an interest in things with a short life span. Everything is designed for durability, repairability and recyclability.

World Economic Forum

While the picture the WEF paints is rosy, there is an underlying assumption that if we give up ownership, then environmentalism will follow. But repairability and circularity are not intrinsically good. We could see a world that mirrors the model of a tool library where communities pool their resources, thoughtfully engage with repair and material consumption, and offer aid to one another. Or we could slip into a world where we only use corporate-sponsored e-scooters (that people inevitably dump into rivers) that require authorized repair and rent clothing boxes because we assume they are better for the environment. If we are going to reverse our habits that have led to the quicker and quicker approach of overshoot each year, we will need to take the first approach of self-reliant repair that empowers us collectively.

No more soldered-in batteries like this one, the EU has declared.

This article was originally published on iFixit’s blog page August 11, 2023:  https://www.ifixit.com/News/79297/a-circular-economy-requires-repairability

Jack Monahan